Celebrating The Fatal Frame Series

by Kimberley Wallace on Oct 31, 2014 at 11:09 AM

How many games truly terrorize you? The Fatal Frame series may have never reached a wide audience, but those who experienced it can't deny that it's one of the most memorable horror franchises.  In fact, I would call the Fatal Frame games some of the scariest ever, and I'm not alone. Director Makoto Shibata even admitted that most people were too scared to even finish the first entry. From the haunting figures to the demented stories, these chilling adventures leave you tense.

This Halloween I wanted to celebrate the franchise that reveled in playing mind games and forced me to confront my fears head on. Fatal Frame had three main entries that hit on the PlayStation 2 and a spin-off that made its way to North America. Unfortunately, the North American market never saw the fourth installment for Wii, and a Western release of the fifth entry on Wii U it doesn't look promising either. 

Demented Stories

I'll never forget seeing the words, "Based on a true story" grace the screen when I loaded up the original Fatal Frame. I'd never played a horror game that was based on something real, and this just made the story all the more frightening. Apparently, the events are based on Japan's legendary Himuro Mansion, where some brutal murders and supernatural occurrences took place. Since Fatal Frame's release, it's been regarded as more of a legend than reality, but that doesn't change the fact that the game gets in your head before you even press start. The franchise depicts ancient rituals in its stories and they're absolutely frightening. In the first game, you learn about the "Strangling Ritual," where victims found themselves bound while their limbs were viciously torn from their body. As you explore a mansion in search of your missing brother, ropes start burning your wrists - forecasting you as the next victim, and when you find out what is going on, it's all the more twisted.

Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly uses the "Crimson Sacrifice Ritual" as its main plotline. The story centers on a cursed village where every decade, an older twin must strangle her younger counterpart to death. The younger twin's soul then acts as the crimson butterfly, guarding the village. The narrative follows a pair of twin sisters who get caught up in the village's harsh demands. Twists abound and things get absolutely horrific, especially depending on which ending you ultimately receive. "The Impalement Ritual" is at the root of Fatal Frame III. This ritual has it so one person carries all the sorrows of the world in the form of tattoos, but what happens when that person starts invading your dreams and bruising your body?

All of these tales are downright frightening in their own right, but Fatal Frame has always explored human relationships well, taking everything the characters hold dear and tormenting them with it. Scorned spirits are frightening because you can understand their vengeance - the raw deal they've been cut. No wonder they have no mercy. Part of the thrill is figuring out just why these apparitions are after you and how your main character is involved in the larger scheme of things. The circumstances and outcomes are rarely cut and dried, and an unexpected (even more terrible) twist is always around the corner. The writing has no boundaries and it shows that up front. Your next step could have a stranger's hand touching your shoulder or induce a flashback to a torturous ritual.

Looking Fear In The Face

You can't talk about the Fatal Frame games without discussing the clever camera mechanic. Wielding a camera as your only weapon against spirits might seem silly in practice, but Fatal Frame uses this feature to bolster its scares. You literally have to look fear in the face and put yourself in vulnerable positions to damage enemies. You want to snap shots that deliver high damage, but to do so you must focus the camera on the relentless ghost before you. The closer the spirit is to you, the more damage you deal. The result? You're constantly putting yourself in danger, baiting spirits to come your way and snapping the shot at the right moment. This adds great tension to battles, and you feel the pressure to not mess up, otherwise you risk damage and waste limited film.

The camera also prepares you for encounters; the ghost filament glows blue when a spirit is nearby and red when a hostile one approaches, immediately putting you on alert. In a way, the camera element is brilliant. How many times are we actually forced to confront haunting creatures in such a vulnerable way? Plenty of horror games reward running, hiding, or straight up brawn and guns to handle the tormentors. Putting yourself out there feels satisfying, and to a large degree, it's what Fatal Frame does best, making you confront your fears instead of escaping them.

Toying With Your Mind

Perhaps what makes the Fatal Frame franchise so enticing is its mind games. The series is so much about questioning everything. Did you really just see something out of the corner of your eye? Spirits often fly past you in a flash. My favorite part is the pure dread these games induce. You look all around for your next location, suddenly you see a ghost in the room below you, and you know you have no choice but to approach the nuisance.

The sound and visuals are also fantastic, never overselling the scares. You walk, only hearing your footsteps, but every so often you'll hear a faint sound or see a bloody imprint that tells you something is awry. The subtlety of it all makes the experience more terrifying, like walking into an empty room only to have it fill up with dead bodies. You never quite know who's watching or what's awaiting; spirits will suddenly appear above you, or worse sneak up behind you.

The Fatal Frame games are all about suspense. Your controller even vibrates - palpitating like a heartbeat - and increases in intensity as dangers arise. Still, no matter how prepared you are for what's coming, you still feel caught off guard when it finally reveals itself. Few games will relentlessly toy with you the way the Fatal Games do.

What do you love about the Fatal Frame series? Let us know in the comments below!

If you haven't played the franchise and want to check it out, the series is available on PSN for PS3.